I've made much of the impending end of Brave New Waves this week, but there's another CBC icon going down for the count this week.
David Wisdom hosted the weekend overnight show Night Lines, BNW's sister program, between 1987 and 1997; he was then bounced to an awkward prime time slot hosting Radio Sonic, where he was audibly uncomfortable until management begrudgingly switched him back to late nights and moved Grant Lawrence to prime time Saturday night--a slot Mr. Lawrence is also surrendering this weekend.
In the meantime, Wisdom has been hosting a 90-minute disc show called Pearls of Wisdom, which is little more than an old-timey record geek show. Which is all it has to be. The first time I heard it, years ago, I was put off by its conservative nature: lots of old-timey jazz, swing and folk music, mixed in with some current Canadiana, primarily aimed at the nursing home crowd. Now that I'm deep into my middle age, I've grown to appreciate it in recent months, as a Sunday night wind-down while cooking dinner. Wisdom remains an unpretentious, amiable and congenial host with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a massive record collection: which, regardless of genre, is exactly the kind of radio I love the most.
Pearls of Wisdom also calls it quits this weekend (not by choice, I'm betting), which seemed like reason enough to resurrect this 2000 interview I conducted with Wisdom for the book Have Not Been the Same. In it he talks not only about Night Lines, but its predecessors, about Canadian music in the late 80s, and about his (and my) favourite Canadian band of all time, the Rheostatics--who, in this month of bloodletting, also call it quits at the end of the month.
Seriously, WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON??!!! March 2007: it's the CanCon apocalpyse, let me tell you. Next thing you know, both NoMeansNo and the Tragically Hip will announce their break-ups before the 31st.
Quick side note: anyone wondering what Patti Schmidt has been doing lately should go to the Ninja Tune website and download their podcast promoting the new Amon Tobin album. It's sort of in the style of a BNW profile, only without announcing track titles (grrrr). It's lovely to hear her voice and writing style alive again, and outside the weight of the BNW drama winding up this week. Hopefully she'll do more for them; frankly, I was hoping for an interview with Tobin, considering that she and he are close friends and video game junkies. She also helped him get busy with the bees on his new album.
I have no idea what Wisdom's next move is. But knowing what I know about CBC politics and his own reputation as a cantankerous curmudgeon off-mic, I'd be surprised if he's still on the air. It's a sad time for the veteran warhorses.
August 30 2000
locale: phone interview from his office in Vancouver
How long have you been in Vancouver? I know you were born in England.
I’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life. I moved here when I was a small boy. I went back and lived in England between 1969 and 1971, when I was still in university, and then went back at various times. I got my Canadian citizenship in 1992, partly inspired by the Rheostatics music, and that’s the truth.
Were you doing campus radio?
No, I’ve never done campus radio and I’ve never taken training in radio. I was working at CBC as a producer on the Vicki Gabereau show and doing stories for her. I had a huge record collection. I collected 45s mainly, in the early days in the 60s and 70s, but then I got heavily into it around the time of punk rock, between ‘77 and ‘80. I went and got a whole lot of records. When they wanted someone to do Night Lines, I was hired because I had the software more than the skills.
Rumour has it you do have the biggest record collection in Vancouver.
I once had. Last year I sold the bulk of my punk/new wave singles to Zulu Records, which in part financed a trip to Europe this year with my family.
When did you start at the CBC?
The day Elvis died in 1977; it was August of ‘77. I was working in the record library, they didn’t want to put stuff like the Sex Pistols in. I remember at one point them saying, ‘What’s the point in putting this Devo record in when nobody will be listening to it in two years’ time?’ Terry David Mulligan had the youth show on the CBC at that time, Gold Rush, I think it was called, and he refused to play the Buzzcocks as examples of good music in the ‘70s, and I went up against him on that one. I think the CBC saw things were changing.
Brave New Waves and Night Lines were my introduction to so-called “pop” music on the CBC; what came before them?
They’ve always tried to be a little bit ahead. They had this show called the Great Canadian Gold Rush hosted by Terry David Mulligan, and for the time it was playing whatever there was, like Lighthouse and such. Then they tried to get considerably hipper, and they got a guy named J.D. Shane and a show called Neon, which was considerably more...
Well, if you want to use that word. They were more interested in new stuff, and I was allowed to go on his show and do items on various things -- mostly English music, which was my all-consuming interest for many years.
Did you perform with or were you just on the recording for UJ3RK5 (I pronounced it 'you jerks')
It was pronounced 'you-jerk,' actually -- the 5 was silent. I was a full-time member, I was singing and wrote some of the songs. When they went to make the record, I was leaving the band, and therefore didn’t play keyboards on the record or sing lead. I was still a member, but I was getting out of the band.
Was that a fairly active band?
It was more active than we wanted it to be. Everybody had real jobs, and there were some famous artists in the band: Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Ian Wallace, who were getting to be quite famous at the time. The music, we were inspired by the tenor of the time, just the fact that people were making music and doing it themselves. We played when we were asked to play, but it was really a secondary thing. Then we got signed by Polydor Records, who wanted us to tour. As soon as they put these kind of considerations before us, we basically fell apart, because we didn’t want to make it a full time deal at all. It was just for fun.
Was that unusual at the time, to be offered a deal for such a laid-back band?
It was pretty unusual. There weren’t that many bands in Vancouver who were being wooed by major labels at all.
The Payola$ and who else, really?
Yeah. To some degree the Pointed Sticks. Not really much else happening. We were quite surprised.
You took over the show in 1987. Do you recall the reaction around the CBC when those shows started in ‘84?
Both started fundamentally at the same time. Augusta LaPaix was the first Brave New Waves host and Ron Robinson was the host of Night Lines for the first one or two seasons, then it was Ralph Benmurgui. There was -- and still is -- resistance to the fact that there is such a thing as what they consider pop music on the CBC. There are still producers here who think it’s killing the CBC and don’t understand why it’s on. Brave New Waves and to a lesser degree Night Lines was considered just way, way out there. Brave New Waves got away with it earlier because they had a certain academic cachet to them. They played what was considered art music, electro-acoustic stuff. It had a more serious tone to it. With Night Lines, I wasn’t sure what to do at the beginning. I knew I had to play a lot of Canadian music, and I didn’t know a whole lot about Canadian music, so I went out and started listening to anything Canadian I could find. I tried for the first two or three seasons to please everyone, and then I figured to hell with them -- I’m just going to play the music I really like.
How long do you think it took you before you settled into that role?
I was sort of nervous at the beginning. I had a couple of guys who were campus radio guys telling me what I should be playing. I was being pushed into areas that I wasn’t at all comfortable with. It took me a year and a half to settle in and really feel that the show was my own, and really feel that people did appreciate what I was playing, and that there was an audience for the kind of ideas I had: non-elitist, and a wide-ranging variety of music.
Were you aware of the impact the show had before you took over? Was it widely listened-to in Vancouver?
I think so. Whenever you take over a show that has a following, there are always going to be people who are going to complain that it’s not the same, and those were the first things I heard. Obviously. Ralph Benmurgui was -- and is -- slicker than I could ever be on the radio. But I wasn’t too worried about that. I knew what I was talking about, I knew about the music, and I worried more about my presentation rather than my lack of knowledge; I had no concern about that.
Was it live back then?
Yes it was. We did it live for years and years. I’d be here until two in the morning. One night it was from 10PM to 5AM, and we did it three hours ahead of time so it would go live to the maritimes. I was sitting there for seven hours for years, doing shows straight through on the weekend.
When did that change?
It changed when real severe cuts were starting to come in, and I was not able to have a technician on the weekends. Then I had to take whatever time I could get in the studio, whenever technicians were available. So we started pre-taping on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
You mention that your knowledge of Cdn music was limited when you took the reins. Who were your favourites beforehand?
I was very Vancouver-centric. We always had an idea that Vancouver music was cooler than Toronto music. Toronto music had a certain kind of feeling that we thought was much more show biz, like Carole Pope. In the beginning of the early days of punk, when there were people like the Poles and the Viletones, we thought, ‘Oh, Toronto people have it wrong. We have DOA, Los Popularos, and a much better music scene going on in Vancouver. So I basically knew very little about music outside of Vancouver until I took over that show and made myself listen to everything I could.
Do you think the show became different when it moved to Vancouver, other than the obvious change in the hosts’ style?
Absolutely it changed. I was much more than an indie kind of guy than Ralph and Ross Porter, who was producing it. I’ve always liked a more rough and independent music rather than anything slick. I shy away from bands when they get too popular. I remember them playing a much slicker sound, and then I got into Og Records’ series of It Came From Canada. I can’t tell you how important that series was. Because on those compilations were early cuts from the likes of Ray Condo and Cowboy Junkies, to the weird bands like the Supreme Bagg Team and Chris Houston’s band. I became aware of a much wider range of music, and started to realize that there was a really interesting kind of music that was different -- everything was different from each other, but there was a similar sensibility to it. There was actually something of a Canadian sound, which had a sense of humour to it. Since the late ‘70s, it’s had a really good sense of humour. I’m thinking of people like the Dik Van Dykes, who were not a big favourite band of mine, but they were loose and didn’t take themselves too seriously. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of music.
Gerard and Tony [of Deja Voodoo and Og] have told me that they also sought out people with some kind of sense of tradition. Not necessarily Ray Condo tradition -- although that was certainly part of it, but just people who had roots in something. They always hated hardcore music for example. The early Asexuals didn’t show up on those compilations. Those comps also gave the illusion of a network of people across the country.
It wove around the record store people, too. Record stores are always really important in music scenes, and there were two here in Vancouver: Track Records and Quintessence, which later became Zulu. The guys who worked there were musicians and turned me on to a whole lot of stuff. I remember going into Track Records, and the guy behind the counter said, “Hey, we just got onto this Og compilation.” He was in the Zamboni Drivers, and this was just a guy down the street. I thought, ‘this is great, the guy down the street just got on this fabulous It Came From Canada, volume whatever.’
You mention the regionalism before and people turning their noses at other cities, and I was wondering about the effect of those comps out west.
It was an absolute real thing. There’s always this contempt, which is made a lot of in the media, about Vancouver dismissing Toronto. It is real, it’s certainly a real thing, although less so than it was years ago. We always thought we had a much better music scene than Toronto did. I certainly don’t agree with that anymore. It isn’t the case now. It may have had some measure of truth to it a while ago, but it hasn’t been that way for years.
I’m trying to picture you immersing yourself in Canadian music trying to fill your playlist in 1987. Who else did you discover that excited you?
I’m trying to remember too, because it was 13 years ago. When I started thinking about what I was going to talk to you about, I was trying to remember those early bands and that time. I was being pushed into this direction of industrial and really hardcore goth bands that I really never liked, like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. The young guys I had from campus radio were saying that this was all the rage, that this was the absolute thing right now, bands from the United States such as Ministry were really big time. But I could never warm up to that. What really opened my eyes to the regions across Canada was when I opened the phone lines up and took calls. I would ask the listeners to not just request something, but they had to answer a skill-testing question as well: recite a poem they just made up, tell a joke or answer a tough question or something. It was amusing, but I’d also learn a whole lot about what was going on in different cities by what they’d request. Then I’d go out and try to find it. For the most part, I’d think, well, this is pretty good, and then I’d fill out my playlists to that kind of stuff.
How many calls would you get a week?
It was so big that I had to shut it down after a few years because I just couldn’t keep up with it. I would put in a 90 minute tape, because this was done before any digital equipment, and it was just an answering machine with a cassette running around. I’d have to come down in the middle of the night to turn the tape over. It was always filled.
Or broken, I recall.
Yeah, it broke a lot. And sometimes it “broke” just because I couldn’t face listening to hours of phone calls! But it was great, and it was part of what made the show really interesting. Over the years there was a revolving cast of really interesting callers. Some one-time only, but more often some semi-regulars that people recognized.
They also often had testimonials. If people were phoning for the first time, they’d say things like, “I can’t tell you how many times this show saved my life.”
(Sighs). Whenever I’m somewhere where people talk to me and say, “Oh, I really like you on the radio,” they never talk to me about RadioSonic. They always go back to Night Lines. And I appreciate that. I think it was a real show and it had a real personality. I think when you’re broadcasting in the middle of the night, you get people who really do listen and really do care about music, other than casual listeners who might just have it on in the car. I think the time of the night is really important for that. I do think we played the best music available and found new stuff that other radio stations would never, never broadcast. I wish I could be more specific about the bands, but it’s somewhat of a blur. I keep trying to think ahead.
When did you first hear Rheostatics? Did someone send you Greatest Hits in the mail?
Somebody told me about a song about a hockey player. I went to a record store and said, ‘What’s this song about Wendel Clark?’ I think it was Track Records. I found Greatest Hits on LP, it had just come out. I thought every song was really, really good. I liked the sound right away. There was something funny about it, but at the core it was something serious. It wasn’t trivial. It sounded like people who really cared about what they were doing. It also sounded really Canadian to me. It sounded like the music came from where it came from, rather than aping any English or American sound. And despite the fact that the guys were pretty young, there was something a little older about them. They weren’t posers at all, there was nothing of that in them. I read that through the music before I ever talked to them. I dunno, I guess I got to know them over time and did little items on them whenever I could. I got to know Dave [Bidini] quite well.
They always did very well in Vancouver.
They have always had rabid fans here. The few gigs I’ve been to here, I was surprised by the variety of ages: young people as well as people in their 30s or early 40s who know all the words. I’d be guessing if I tried to figure out why they especially connected with audiences out here, I just don’t know. But it’s true, they certainly do have believers rather than just fans or people who really love them. The last time I saw them was an in-store at a Chapters bookstore, and everyone was just thrilled. The four of them sat on stools and played guitars, and it was like Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Only good!
Did you follow them through the breakup?
I did. I was kept abreast of what was going on. When I talk to Dave about this, the lowest time for the Rheostatics was when they were the most popular, when they were whisked off to the West Indies to make that album. And I think that’s their weakest, and I think they lost track of things a bit around that time. I’ve not been disappointed by anything since, though. I think Melville is one of the great Canadian albums. I put it up there with music by The Band and Neil Young, their very best work. That period of their output was great, with Whale Music. When I was being sworn in as a Canadian citizen, “Northern Wish” was the song running through my head. It still moves me deeply, that record.
I recall you playing that song next to “Whispering Pines” on the last Night Lines show.
I think I’ve done those two songs together more than once. It works really well.
I’m wondering about other bands from that period that affected you perhaps not that deeply, but closely.
I like rock’n’roll. I was quite turned on by that band, what’s their name, they made three albums -- my God! Sons of Freedom. I thought they were really great. I think there are some good strong bands who have lasted a long time. 54.40 have a lot of merit and have their own sound. I like the Doughboys -- even though they were called imitative. I thought there was quite a spate of good melodic, hard rockin’ Canadian music for quite a long time. I’m not sure that’s still the case. That might have peaked when the Halifax scene was still going. I thought there were tons of really good bands. I had no problem trying to find stuff to play.
There was a lot of indie product after 1990, for a lot of reasons.
Nowadays I see five times more records than I’ve ever seen in my life, because I’m sitting in an office with people who are working on these web sites [the nascent CBC Radio 3]. They’re soliciting every single CD that anyone has ever even thought of making. A lot of them, they shouldn’t be here at all. A lot of them are demos, they’re hardly work at all. I would need to step back; there’s so much music that I can’t put my finger on anything in particular to make me think hey, this is a really good period for music right now. It’s hard to see.
Were there certain bands that you felt Night Lines helped to break?
I know there were. We started doing our sessions about half way through, in ‘91. Some bands we really did give a leg up to. I’m thinking of a band like Cub. They became popular through touring and the novelty aspect of three women, but I think we played them a lot and recorded sessions with them when they were just getting their chops together. I don’t know if that had anything to do with them getting popular, but I think it did. We helped a lot of bands. I don’t know how many of them are around still or even involved in music, but I was really happy when we started doing sessions. Brave New Waves was doing sessions, and I really wanted to do that.
What about Jr. Gone Wild?
Actually, Calgary really began to happen in the ‘90s as well. There were great bands coming out of Calgary for a while. Like the Primrods, those garage-y types. I’m thinking of the Von Zippers now, but they’re quite recent. Chixdiggit, Huevos Rancheros, and even a bit before that, I thought there was something really good about the Calgary music scene. It was really small, but everyone was really into helping each other, and I thought it was pretty vibrant and fun for a good long time. Edmonton used to be a music city, especially in the ‘70s it was quite a stop for blues and such, but I know less about Edmonton than Calgary these days. But Jr. Gone Wild were certainly a band that had Vancouver connections: Ford Pier and so forth. I knew a bit more about them.
What can you tell me about Herald Nix?
He’s a guy who’s considered -- in a way, sort of like Art Bergmann -- to be a talent, a real natural songwriter with -- in a similar vein to Art Bergmann -- personal problems that have prevented him from ever getting it together. But Herald Nix plays semi-regularly in Vancouver, and he has a very hardcore following of fans who think that this is a guy who really can write great songs. But that might be as far as it goes. The recordings have been dubious and few. He’s on a few local compilations, but there’s been very little. He’s one of those guys that plays locally, but rarely records successfully, if at all.
What was the impact of labels like Zulu and Mint? They were synonymous with Vancouver.
Zulu, which was Quintessence before, was very important. The recent three reissues that Zulu put out of Young Canadians, Pointed Sticks and the Modernettes, those were important. I think Zulu blew it by signing bands who refused to tour or couldn’t get it together to tour. They put out some pretty keen stuff, but couldn’t follow it up. Mint is a label run by true believers who do it for the love of it. It has that Nardwuar the Human Serviette aspect of it, a real indie...
That’s an adjective now, is it? The Nardwuar aspect?
Yes, like a funny middle finger to the rest of the world. They’ll never make any dough. Neko Case was a big deal for them, but she’s gone now. She got too popular. Zulu is still a centre of intense musical activity. They have instore performances. I don’t think they’re going to put out any more CDs for a while. I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of record stores and labels.
Did you follow the Slow saga at all?
I wish I could say I was at their performance at Expo 86 when they dropped trou, but I just heard about it the next day. But they were and still are legendary. The guys that are in Copyright, are still in a way local heroes. They captured something of the times, and they were great.
What about NoMeansNo? They always seemed to be outsiders.
They are outsiders.
Maybe that’s the reason for their longevity.
That absolutely may be the case. Because they don’t play very often. They play once every two years at the Commodore Ballroom, and they’ll fill it up. But the rest of the time they’re in Slovenia or Finland. If I can be delicate, those guys are difficult guys. The Wright Brothers, Tom Holliston, and Andy Kerr before. I get on well with them, but they are basically offended by everything they see in the world, and it’s hard to get along and function with that sense. But at the same time, that’s what spurs them into doing what they do. They’re pissed off. They’re older, curmudgeon-ly, pissed off guys. They don’t trust anyone, and I do think that’s part of their longevity. They don’t trust anyone to do anything for them. They got tied up with Jello Biafra’s label, and they had problems with that and Jello didn’t prove to be the saint that he seems to be. Just another guy who gets drunk and wants money sometimes. So they keep being disappointed. As the Hanson Brothers they were asked to sing at an all-star hockey game in Vancouver a couple of years ago, and they could have hung around and done the banquet thing with Wayne Gretsky, but they were totally offended by everything and left right away. I thought, you guys! You just gotta relax. But they do not, and I guess that’s their strength.
What about people who only appeared on your show, like the Maurice Pooby’s of the nation? How many were there?
The two big ones were Maurice Pooby and a woman from Winnipeg, Eve Rice, whose band is called Vav Jungle, a bizarre little outfit. She’s very out there and I think she creates pretty nifty music. She got into putting music on tape after I invited people to write theme music for the show. She wrote a terrific one, opening theme, and I just loved it and encouraged her. So she made tapes for me and eventually distributed them on her own label. She’d do stuff like team up with a 50-year old go-go dancer, just bizarre. I don’t think she’d be in music if it wasn’t for Night Lines. As for Pooby, I played some of his stuff for Dr. Demento, and I said, would you be interested if he sent you some of his stuff? He said, ‘Oh yeah, I’d play it all the time!’ I contacted Pooby and he said, ‘Ah, I don’t care.’ Interesting guy. He still sends me cassettes, far fewer now. Some pretty brilliant stuff.
The first time I heard Ween I thought it was him. When did he start sending you stuff?
It was very early. I’d say about ‘89 was when he started making music. He’s the genuine article. He lives by himself on a very secluded island off the coast, and he’s a doper.
When did you notice a lot of the east coast stuff coming in?
It got to me gradually, being on the other end of the country. I was really surprised. I didn’t know how popular Sloan were until they were really popular. That surprised me entirely. When their CD was picked as the #1 Cdn album ever on Chart I thought, woah, I missed this! I knew them and thought they were fine, but I had no idea. I’ve come to really enjoy their music, but that snuck up on me. But it was more people telling me how great the Halifax scene was; I didn’t have that much evidence of it. There was a band called NFA, garage punk guys who have been making music for years. Whenever a band goes through New Brunswick, they would stay on these guys’ floor. They would send me stuff. But I think Julie Doiron is great, I really liked those singles she did as Broken Girl. I thought there was some real raw music coming out of there that I liked.
Was it primarily you programming the entire show?
It was me. After six months. I was listening to these college guys, and they would have had me playing Skinny Puppy and Ministry far too much. It was just me and the audience, obviously. I was turned on to stuff through their requests. But I didn’t want anyone else to do it at all.
So the mandate was entirely in your hands.
I sort of slipped through the cracks for ten years. They knew I was there; they knew I was getting good response. Bascially nobody said a word to me for ten years. They just let me do it. It was the best job I ever had, and I’d do it again. In fact, I might do it again. [Shortly after this conversation, Wisdom had another brief stint hosting in the Night Lines slot, on a show called Radio On.]
After having been ignored for years, how did the show come to an end?
That was a case of a woman who came in to take over the head of Radio Two programming, and thought she should make changes just for the sake of making changes. Since that time she’s long gone, and her legacy was instrumental in destroying a lot of what was good about CBC Radio.
How did Brave New Waves survive?
Because it can, when it chooses to, be seen in that camp of academic, serious music. A guy named Alec Frame, who’s fundamentally the head of Radio Two now, has always thought it was a good show. Sometimes all it takes is that one guy who’s going to stick around and be an administrator for years who likes you and will support you. I think that’s happened with them. They’ve been on so long that they have a devoted audience.
And one that’s changed.
I preferred the show during Brent’s day only because I thought it was funnier.
I was wondering about the last show. Where did you broadcast that from?
It was outside the CBC building here on the plaza. It was the night that Princess Diana died, so there were a lot of distracted people. I did it in front of an audience; there weren’t that many of them there, but Maurice Pooby was there, and people flew in from Detroit, the Maritimes and Toronto. It was very nice. I got champagne and people clapped at the end. It was fun.
Did you know the Diana news when you were broadcasting?
My wife told me about a third of the way through. I made the decision not to mention it and not to even refer to it, because I didn’t know the facts. I think I was right to do that, but I know a lot of people buggered off to watch CNN.
I remember Grant Lawrence on that show talking about his phone-ins over the years. Were there other band people who would do those?
He was a good one, because he took it kind of professionally. He did it from Japan. But we had this thing going where he was always a bit over the line. He was quite foul, actually, and I always had to yell at him to cover up his foulness, but we enjoyed doing that together and still do.
The Rheostatics session on the last show...
I loved that.
How long before was it recorded?
They were the first ones I wanted to do a session with. But basically, they were in Toronto, and it was and still is very hard to get technicians at the CBC to record bands there. It’s almost impossible. I’d always have to go to Toronto and record bands at the Horseshoe before I’d even get to hear them live. But the Rheos one couldn’t have been better. They had “The Pooby Song” and everything. It made me think that the whole thing had a purpose to it and had been worthwhile and was a part of something going on in Canadian music. That’s what the Rheostatics doing that session accomplished.